Sunday, July 31, 2016

Using a closed trailer to move collector cars

Are you thinking about a closed trailer to move your collector car to events?

The first question to ask is:  Do you have a vehicle that can haul your pet car in a trailer?  If you want to move a full sized car it’s going to weigh 4-5,000 pounds, plus a similar weight of trailer and gear.  In total you will have a towed load near 10,000 pounds. Even little cars weigh more than you think.  A vintage MINI or a small racecar is a 6-7,000 pound load in many cases.

That kind of rig is best pulled by a full-sized 2500 or 3500 pickup with the biggest possible engine (this means your rig will probably get all of 10mpg if lucky).  If you don’t have a suitable tow vehicle you may consider renting.  Outfits like Penske rent late model 2500 trucks with tow packages.  Professional haulers will use even bigger rigs, with gooseneck or fifth wheel couplers. 

We use a 24 foot trailer, which gives about 6 feet of storage and work room in front of a large car.  Others prefer 28 foot trailers for even more clearance.  If you’re moving full size cars like Rolls-Royce or vintage American iron things will get really tight in anything smaller.  

If you buy a new trailer it’s probably going to come with a basic ball hitch.  Most professionals I know use a load distributing system to shift some of the tongue weight to the front wheels of the tow vehicle.  Sway dampers are another common addition.  The trailer needs a jack at the front to uncouple it safely, and it’s smart to have jacks in the rear so you can load and unload without being hooked to the tow vehicle. 

The most important thing to remember when you load the car is to drive it far enough forward that you have a decent weight on the hitch, but not so far forward that too much weight is on the coupling.  A good rule of thumb is that the tongue weight should be about 10% of the trailer weight.

With a 10,000lb load that means a tongue weight of 1,000 pounds or so.  It’s important to make sure the hitch and coupling are both rated for that weight.  If you have a late-model 2500 or larger truck with factory tow package it’s likely to use the commercial 2.5 inch square system, which will handle that no problem.  Older vehicles may be challenged.

You can check your tongue weight with a tongue weight scale (available from an RV dealer) or by weighing the rig on a commercial scale. If your tongue weight is too high you can reduce it by moving the car back in the trailer, but don’t move it back too far.  Low tongue weight is the main cause of instability and sway in trailers.  If you’re using a weight distributing hitch you should look at its instructions to level the truck now.  Don’t forget to grease the hitch balls and pivots too.

Once you’ve figured out where to position the car in the trailer for proper balance the next step is to tie it down.  If you’re doing this for the first time, you might want to mark the positions of the wheels and unload the car, because you will need to add tie down points. 

There are two good choices to tie the car to the trailer.  Either tie the wheels to the trailer floor, or tie the suspension to the floor.  In both cases, the tie downs leave the vehicle free to move up and down over bumps.

If you tie the vehicle down by the body with short up and down straps (the way cars were secured on multi car carriers for decades) they will be slamming the straps every time the bounces up and down, and eventually something will break.  The only way to avoid movement over bumps will be to cinch the car down so tight the suspension is fully compressed.  Few people move cars in single car trailers that way today because the risk of damage is too high.

We use two methods to secure cars.  The first is called  e-track, and it’s similar to the l-track used in airplanes.  We have tracks running front to back along the floor of the trailer, and the car is driven in atop them.  We put heavy rubber chocks in front of the wheels and then snap e track straps into the floor behind the wheels.  The straps pass over the wheels to a loop in front of the tire.  The strap stretched forward to a tensioner latched into the track just in front of the car.

In the rear we put loops of strap around the rear axle braces, and hook straps from there to rings that are set into the trailer floor.  Those are our principal means of keeping the car in place on heavy deceleration.

To do that job, it is important that the rings and e tract be secured with nuts and bolts through the trailer floor and frame.  If you buy a trailer “set up” I suggest you check this carefully because many people install tie down points with sheet metal screws or even wood screws and those weak attachments will rip out under stress!

Once the car is safely tied down it’s time to think about what else you’ll need to bring.  One obvious thing is a spare tire.  Our trailer has four tires.  If you run over something that damages one tire, it’s likely to damage both.  For that reason we carry two spare tires, tied down to more e-track in the front of the trailer. 

What about changing the tire?  To do that you will need to get a jack under the trailer axle, and the jack must be strong enough to lift a loaded trailer.  I carry a 3.5 ton floor jack from our shop for this purpose.  You might look at that jack in the trailer and think it’s overkill but I assure you the tune would change as soon as you faced a flat tire on a dirt roadside with something less.  We keep a tool box in the trailer with a battery powered impact gun and hand wrenches for the wheel lugs and all the hardware on the trailer and hitch.  We also carry a few spare lug nuts.

PRO TIP: Make sure your jack will fit under the trailer if both tires on one side are flat, and make sure you have enough spares to change out a side (usually two to three tires)

I really encourage you to test your tools for this at home, to be sure you can actually change a tire at night by the side of the road.  That is no time to discover your lug wrench isn’t strong enough or the jack won’t lift the trailer.

Before driving off you should check the tightness of all the hardware on the hitch and tow rig.  Check the wheel lugs and check the pressure in the truck and trailer tires.  In most cases the trailer tires will be inflated to the pressure stamped in the tire sidewall.  Follow the recommendations in the owner’s manual for the tires on the truck.

Check the trailer brakes and the brake controller.  Any closed trailer should have electric brakes.  One tip – if the trailer starts to sway when you’re on the highway you can often damp it by touching the trailer brake while the tow vehicle coasts.  Applying the tow vehicle brake in that situation may make your sway worse.

What if a tire goes low?  A low tire may mean a leak, and for that you can purchase liquid stop leak.  It’s an aerosol that partly inflates and plugs a leaking tire at the same time.  It’s often an effective temporary repair for nail punctures and similar damage.  Some people carry battery powered compressors to pump up tires, but I find them unacceptably slow. We also carry a 12 gallon tank of 125psi compressed air that can quickly inflate tires on the tow rig or on the vehicles we are towing.

TIP:  Carry an infrared thermometer in your truck and shoot the temps on the tires at every stop.  Trailer tires should be even 100-140 degrees in temperate weather.  A higher temp usually means low air or damage.  The truck rear tires may run a bit hotter unless you have duel wheels, which will probably be cooler

You would be wise to pack a set of flares in your tool box, along with 4 chocks for the trailer and truck wheels.   The list of other tools you may carry depends on your abilities.  In addition to hand tools we pack several battery powered lights and lanterns that are essential for any repairs at night.  We carry Milwaukee M18 battery powered lights and impact wrenches.  They make a really nice blower whose power rivals that of a small gas leaf blower.  We use it to dry cars after washing, and to blow dust off the paint or out of the interior.  You can find similar tools from Makita and other makers – battery power has really taken over!

We pack a big co2 fire extinguisher, as well as a dry chemical unit in the cab of the truck.  If you have to put out a fire in a collector car co2 or Halon gas is what you want because it’s won’t leave nasty residue but you need a big extinguisher to do the job.  They are expensive but worth in, for damage avoided.

When you get to the show you may end up parking the trailer and driving off in the truck.  If you do it will be smart to lock the trailer against theft.  We use high security padlocks on the rear door, a quality dead bolt latch for the side door, and a lock on the coupler.  When the trailer is hooked to the truck we lock the hitch to the vehicle and we lock the release pin on the trailer.

With all that preparation we hope to get our cars to the show fields in the same pristine condition they were in when we loaded.  If it doesn’t, our trailer carries polish, towels and other cleaning supplies for on-field touch up.  The battery powered air gun is a great help.  We usually carry some lightweight drive-on ramps too in case anything needs attention on the ground.  And speaking of the ground – don’t forget a foam pad (like a yoga mat) or at least a big beach towel to lay on when you hook up under the car, etc.

Before you set out, I suggest gathering the registration and insurance documents for the truck, trailer, and show car in one place, in case you get pulled over.  Better to discover any problems now so you don’t end up in a country pokey later.  Make sure registrations and inspections are all up to date and your loaded rig is not over its registered weight limit.  Check carefully for any potential violations on either the truck or the trailer.

With all that, I hope your towing and showing experience is a good one.  See you on the road!

(c) 2016 John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

What makes up the high annual costs for a vintage Bentley or Rolls Royce?

What makes up the annual  upkeep costs for a vintage Bentley or Rolls Royce?

When people ask me what it will cost to keep a 1980s-1990s Rolls Royce on the road (with moderate use) I usually say it’s a middle four figure sum, if you pay someone to do all the work.

Every year the car should have its oil changed.  The other fluids should be checked. The chassis should be lubricated.   The hydraulics should be bled.  All the car’s equipment should be checked and serviced as needed.  This job will take 4-6 hours, and consume several hundred dollars of fluids and supplies.

If you are paying $100-150 per hour for labor this service is probably close to or above $1,000.

On an older car you will always be coming due on something.  Perhaps it’s transmission fluid due every 30,000 miles, or coolant due every 3-4 years.  And there are tires every 5-10 years.  Those periodic items add up.

Next are mechanical repairs.  The car may emerge from storage with inoperative air conditioning, or a fresh oil leak.  It might develop a running problem, or the radio antenna might fail.  On a labor-intensive British car those repairs can easily exceed $2,000 per year.  Or you may get lucky and have none.  More likely, the problems occur and the driver fails to spot them, or chooses to ignore them.

Over my years as a service manager I have seen some really egregious faults - rock hard suspensions, 8 cylinder cars running on 4 cylinders, and Rolls-Royce cars with blown exhausts being driving down the boulevard by oblivious owners.  "I thought that was the way it was," they've told me and I just shake my head in wonder.

Then there are those who notice the faults and say, "Let it go; I'm selling it soon." Those people annoy me because I know they plan to pass the problems on to the next sucker, though they would never admit that truth.  

Finally, there are cosmetic costs.  The car may get dented.  Wood veneers crack, and leather splits.  Those repairs don’t happen every year, but when they do, they are costly.  Small dent repairs can run $1,000, while overall paint jobs can exceed $30,000. 

When someone says “I’ve owned the car ten years and never spent anywhere near those sums,” that usually tells us they have overlooked most of the items above.  Mechanics may be working, but run down. The paint may be more faded, and the leather harder. The wood may show some additional cracks.  Some owners dismiss that as “patina” while others want it fixed. 

A car with a lot of patina eventually becomes a candidate for restoration or scrappage.  Restoration of a 1990s-vintage Rolls is a six-figure proposition and few of those jobs are done today.  Most people look for a “good enough” example and drive it a few years.  That’s ok as long as acceptable cars can be found, but eventually they will all be gone, and people will see very steep costs to bring rougher cars back.

Can you buy a decent running car, drive it lightly, and get away with doing nothing for a couple years?  Probably so.  But at some point there will be a reckoning, and it will probably cost more than keeping the car in good shape right along.  I can’t tell you have many times I’ve brought one of those “never needed anything” cars into our shop, only to write up a $15,000 list of needed repairs.

And what about those $15,000 lists? How can an owner know what is real and what’s “mechanic exaggeration?”  My advice is that you ask the mechanic to show you.  We document everything we report with measurements and photos.  If a car should hold brake pressure for 40 pumps of the pedal, and it fails at 9 pumps, it’s worn out.  The fact that the brakes still work does not matter.  That measurement may be your only warning they are headed to failure.  Fluids should not leak.  You may look at a leak, and decide you’d live with the spots rather than pay a huge repair bill, but in either case the leak is a valid problem to report. 

We can test fluids like antifreeze, but if Rolls-Royce says “change this every five years” we ignore that at our peril.  Some will do that, others won’t.

Cosmetic damage is all in the eye of the beholder. One person will look at cracked wood trim on the doors and have to have it fixed, even though it costs $4,000.  Another person would not care.
Taken together, I think you can see how the work adds up on these cars.  You can get a free ride for a few years, but know that you are just passing the buck to the next buyer.  And when you buy a used car – know that most sellers are passing their buck onto you.  That’s a really good reason to check a car like this out thoroughly before you buy.

John Elder Robison

(c) 2016 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Balance shaft failure on Mercedes V6 engines

Your check engine light comes on, but the engine in your car seems to run fine.  What’s the worst it can be, you ask?  That’s never a good question, because the worst it can be, is usually pretty bad.  Perhaps a new engine, or even a new car.

In this blog I'd like to look at the dread P1200 and P1208 codes, and what they mean.  

Mercedes has a long history of building reliable and long-lived engines.  That’s why it came as such a surprise, when we found engine lights coming on from internal wear.  This is what Mercedes technicians refer to as “the balance shaft problem.”

 The balance shaft is a weighted shaft Mercedes installed in V6 engines to improve smoothness.  The shaft is driven by the timing chain, which also turns the camshafts in precise relation to the crankshaft rotation.  Therein lies the problem. 

The timing chain and sprockets are like a bicycle chain and gears.  As long as the chain stays in place, the gears all rotate in unison and timing integrity should be maintained.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.  The Mercedes timing chains stretch with age, so a chain that started out 36 inches long in 2005 might be 36.5 inches long today.  The chain sprockets wear too, and when the chain sits deeper on the sprocket the sprocket effectively shrinks in size, which has the same effect as stretching the chain.

In both cases, the cam timing becomes retarded, and that ultimately sets the 1200 and 1208 codes.  That sort of thing always happened with timing chains but it wasn’t a problem on old time motors because the timing relationship between crank and cam didn’t need to be so precise.  Older engines didn't generate cam retard faults because they didn't monitor cam timing. That’s all changed as auto engineers push to get every bit of power from ever-lighter and smaller engines.  One of the ways they do that is by varying the cam timing with adjuster mechanisms on the camshafts.  The adjusters can compensate for some wear, but when the wear moves beyond the compensation limit, a check engine light appears.

In extreme cases, the engine will actually begin to skip, or lose power.  If you live in a state with emission test (most of the USA) the car will no longer pass the annual smog test. 

We often see these cars after their owners have visited the dealer and been stunned by a $6-9,000 repair estimate.  They can’t believe a car that runs so well (all that’s wrong is that light!) needs such an expensive repair.  And they don’t understand how that could happen, on a high-end car like theirs.

Two explanations have emerged for how it happens.  The first is that the alloys used in the gears were too soft, and they wore out prematurely.  The second explanation says there had to be a lubrication failure, for any metal parts to wear out.  That puts some or most of the blame on engine oil – either the wrong oil was used in the motor, or it wasn’t changed often enough.

Mercedes says they’ve addressed the “soft gears” with new improved parts.  They sell all the internal parts you need for the job in a single kit. They feel that is a permanent repair, and I hope they are right. Even so, we encourage owners to minimize the lubrication risk by changing oil at 7,500 miles (not the 10,000+ miles Mercedes originally suggested) and insisting on the correctly rated oil, like Mobil 1 0-40.  But that only helps once the engine is fixed.  And that’s a project.

Balance shaft replacement requires engine removal and extensive disassembly. These photos show a typical Mercedes sedan with engine removed, and then the progressive teardown of the engine to reach the affected parts.  This is a week-long job in most cases.

To do this repair the engine is set on a stand.  The lower oil pan is removed for access, and then the front end rear covers come off the engine.  At that point the timing chains are exposed and the balance shaft (which runs through the motor, front to back) can be removed.

The photo below shows a new balance shaft being inserted into the block.

When the engine is pulled from the car we encourage owners to look at all the ancillary parts, as this is the time to replace them pro-actively.  Items to check would be belt idlers, motor mounts, water pump, and others items that are prone to wearing out. Also look at maintenance – are the plugs and air filters fresh?

When the engine goes back in the car it should get fresh Mercedes coolant and fresh synthetic oil.  While some shops re-use old fluids those services are part of every repair at Robison Service. 

There’s one more possible complication I should mention.  That is the possibility of sludge.  If the engine’s service was badly neglected there may be sludge in the motor, and there’s no good way to clean that out short of complete overhaul (a very costly job).  That is a serious problem, and if found, we generally suggest engine replacement.

(c) 2016 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Mercedes-Benzrestoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Mercedes clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine German motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.